Radio The Quatermass Memoirs Radio 3

'Once the Fifties were seen as an age of youth and innocence. Now it's all to do with the Cold War'
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The Independent Culture
Funny how times change. Take the Fifties. There was a time when that decade was an age of youth and innocence, all rock 'n' roll and James Dean movies. It was the Sixties when the weird stuff happened, when Kennedy got shot and Lady Chatterley was published. But the Fifties were a lull before the storm - conservative, affluent, a little fuddy- duddy, but basically fun.

Somewhere along the road, though, the shine has worn off that decade. Now, the collective memory is, if you go by what you hear on Radio 3's Fifties season, all to do with the Cold War and its attendant terrors. Archive tape and present-day reminiscence in Sunday's feature, "Even Paranoids Have Enemies", all pushed the listener towards a single idea: that this was an age of anxiety, most of which was wholly reasonable, given that we had weapons capable of destroying the world and politicians capable of going right ahead.

There is an entire school of Cold War irony that can get very wearing; and Mark Burman and Paul Quinn, the producers of this programme, are evidently teacher's pets. There were moments of tedium (how many more times must we listen to clips from that propaganda film advising you, in case of nuclear attack, to "duck and cover"?); but there were also a couple of places where the complacency could still give you a mild shock: one unnamed British politician declaring, "I know there's anxiety about the atomic bomb," and offering the reassurance that there was little cause for fear that it would be used lightly.

The theme of justifiable paranoia was continued in the first two parts of The Quatermass Memoirs, a mix of documentary and nostalgic science fiction, held together by Nigel Kneale's hindsight-ridden commentary. Kneale's central insight was that the reason for the popularity of his fictional scientist struggling to master horrors born out of technology, was that he embodied the fears of ordinary people. Like "Even Paranoids Have Enemies", this series has so far been hugely enjoyable - thanks in large part to Andrew Keir, who recreates the role of Quatermass in dramatic interludes; lesser actors would treat Kneale's downbeat script with a certain detachment, but Keir is prepared to charge even the most banal lines with a terror that's both a treat and a lesson.

In both programmes, though, you get the sense that a vogue for science fiction is being interpreted as the spirit of the Fifties, with emphasis being put on a handful of sci-fi films. If you really wanted to read the age through its movies, you'd have to include Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, late Ealing and early Norman Wisdom, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. It's a lot to accommodate; perhaps sticking to terror is just less intimidating.

n 'The Quatermass Memoirs' continues on Radio 3 tonight, 9pm

ROBERT HANKS

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